Vatican admits to culture of sexual abuse

The World Today Archive – Thursday, 22 March , 2001  00:00:00

Reporter: Rebecca Carmody

COMPERE: In a shocking admission, the Vatican
has acknowledged that many of its priests are serial rapists and all
too often their victims are nuns under the authority of the priests who
perpetrate the violence.

The Vatican made the admission after a story broke in The National Catholic Reporter
alleging abuse in 23 countries. One source told the story of a priest
who presided over the funeral of a nun who died after undergoing an
abortion at his insistence. It’s also alleged that rather than risk
catching AIDS from prostitutes, priests in Africa have sexually
assaulted nuns, who are considered to be safe partners.

Rebecca Carmody reports.

REBECCA
CARMODY: The allegations are as startling as they are damning for the
Catholic Church. They include nuns being sexually abused in 23
countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. Australia is
not among them.

In extreme cases there are also allegations of
priests impregnating nuns and then forcing them to undergo abortions.
Tom Roberts is the editor of The National Catholic Reporter, the US-based newspaper which broke the story. He says the report is based on five separate church studies.

TOM
ROBERTS: The impression I get from the reports that we used to base the
story on is that it was something more than isolated incidents, that it
has become in some ways a practice in some places.

The exact –
how widespread it is, we’re not sure, and nor were those people who
were, who didn’t really quantify in a scientific way the dimensions of
the problem.

REBECCA CARMODY: The author of one of the reports obtained by The National Catholic Reporter is Sister Mary O’Donohue, formerly the AIDS coordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development.

Her
report compiled seven years ago links the sexual abuse of nuns to the
prevalence of AIDS in Africa and concerns about contracting the disease.

TOM
ROBERTS: One of the elements that is mentioned in the report is the,
you know, the epidemic of AIDS in Africa, in a culture where they said,
you know, some priests would previously have gone to prostitutes,
they’re now seeking nuns as kind of safe sexual targets.

REBECCA
CARMODY: Another report says the inferior position of women, especially
in Africa, is a major reason why abuse occurs. That report’s author
wrote, "Sometimes when a sister becomes pregnant the priest insists
that she have an abortion." She said, "Priests sometimes exploit the
financial dependency of young sisters or take advantage of spiritual
direction and the sacrament of reconciliation to exhort sexual favours."

Tom Roberts from The National Catholic Reporter says while acknowledgment of the problem by the Vatican is a big step, it can go one step further.

TOM
ROBERTS: I think that this episode is – and these reports are
symptomatic, another symptom of something deeper in the church that
needs to be discussed. The question about sexuality in general, the
question about mandatory celibacy.

And I think that the question’s not do you ban celibacy, but is it necessary as an absolute requirement for all ordination.

REBECCA
CARMODY: Sister Angela Ryan heads The National Committee for
Professional Standards for the Catholic Church in Australia. Her job is
to stamp out sexual abuse within the church.

She says while paedophilia has been a problem, the abuse of nuns by the clergy hasn’t.

SISTER
ANGELA RYAN: We do try to instruct them about – towards healing and the
fact that they can come and talk with people, bring forward a
complaint. We also have a program, or a booklet, on what we’ve called
Integrity in Ministry, which is like a code of conduct, a document of
principles and standards for Catholic clergy and religious in
Australia. And we’ve done a lot of work talking with people about
what’s contained in that code.

REBECCA CARMODY: Do you think
this whole problem of sexual abuse within the church represents a
strong argument for the church to rethink its position on celibacy?

SISTER
ANGELA RYAN: You’d be in a position where the experts, I’m no
counsellor or expert, but the researchers say to us in general that
celibacy isn’t the – there isn’t a difference in the number of people
who abuse from those who don’t.

I mean, we know that, for example, child sexual abuse, or most of it, is family and trusted friends.

REBECCA CARMODY: As a member of the Catholic community, how upsetting for you is it when these sort of stories break?

SISTER
ANGELA RYAN: Having taken on this position of executive officer, I
think it shows – I was a principal of a school. I’ve come out of a
school and come into this role because I have a major belief that it is
so important that, as a Catholic Church, we address the abuse that has
been committed by our members and that we move out towards victims and
are willing to deal with the issue.

So yes, it’s upsetting, but it’s also something that we do need to address. And I’m determined to be part of addressing it.

COMPERE:
Sister Angela Ryan, executive officer of The National Committee for
Professional Standards in the Catholic Church in Australia, with
Rebecca Carmody.

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